When I entered the fine art field in 1982, after 10 years as a freelance commercial illustrator, it was a complete mindset change, and the beginning of a totally new career. I had a lot to learn and absorb. Subscribing to several art magazines was one way I learned who-was-who and what was going on in the world of representational art. One artist extremely visible and popular at the time was Richard Earl Thompson. His work was everywhere, and then he just seemed to disappear. One never hears of him or sees his work today, so I thought it a good idea to put a spotlight back on him and his work. (Click images to enlarge)
He was an American Impressionist from Wisconsin. As he gained popularity, critics sarcastically labeled him “Wisconsin’s Monet” because they accused him of being nothing more than a Monet imitator or copyist. Actually, Monet was not his favorite French Impressionist; he preferred Pissarro, Renoir, and Sisley. He borrowed their techniques but also those of the Barbizon painters. Ultimately, Thompson was his own man, and his style uniquely his own.
Thompson was born in 1914. His father was an art director for Montgomery Ward department stores, headquartered in Chicago. He created layouts, pen drawings, catalogue designs, and commissioned illustrators for the catalogue covers…prominent names like Norman Rockwell.
Son, Richard, took up drawing at an early age, and being around his father and other artists, he was thoroughly exposed to the art business.
By the time he was eight, he had already made up his mind to become an artist, but there was another interest as well. He was an excellent Soprano singer, appearing on many professional and amateur singing shows in the Chicago area. At age 16, when his voice began to change, he was faced with a difficult decision…pursue art or music. You know his choice.
Seeking advice concerning art training, he wrote letters to American Impressionist painters, Edward Redfield and George Gardner Symons. They recommended he pursue studies at the Chicago Academy of Fine Art. Due to his young age…still being in high school and involved in sports…his art training was confined to Saturday’s.
The Academy was a training ground for those pursuing a commercial art career. It was there that he learned the importance of sound draftsmanship. It was a sensible choice since the popularity of Modernism made it virtually impossible for someone of the time to make it financially as a representational painter.
Of the time, he says: “Objective art was mainly out of vogue. Money was tight and I had no track record as an artist, but I kept painting on the side. My fine art paintings were always better than the commercial ones. My heart wasn’t in commercial art, but it was a living.”
However, it was through his commercial art career that he achieved a high level of financial stability for his family, allowing him to walk away from it in the early 60’s in order to concentrate full-time on fine art.
But, back to his commercial career for a moment. He opened his own studio in Chicago at the age of nineteen. In 1937 he married Mary Munn and they had three sons. A few years later he went to work in the studio of the great Haddon Sundblom (famous for his Coca Cola/Santa Claus ads). Thompson stayed with Sundblom through WW2, while commuting from his home in Wisconsin.
After WW2, he again opened his own studio, renewing his freelance career. He was a workaholic, putting in 16-hour days, but by the early 60’s he was done.
Thompson believed in working fast. “The best works of art are those done the fastest…in white heat, direct and unhampered.” (We sure differ on that one.)
“Think” was a very important word when preparing to paint. He thought out his paintings in advance, often beginning with preliminary sketches. He worked from a clear glass palette underlaid with white paper. Since he began with a white canvas, this made perfect sense to him.
Unfortunately, I could not find anywhere a list of the colors on his palette, but I did learn that he used the violet, blues, and indigos of the French Impressionists, but also the browns and grays of the Barbizon and Munich traditions.
His early canvases were textured with molding paste or gesso to create an impasto effect. He later abandoned that technique and relied on a thicker application of paint to achieve the same effect. He would at times tone his canvas with an oil wash that best represented what was to be the predominant hue of the painting. This was followed by massing in of the darkest values. He did not object to using photos for reference, but obviously did not copy them.
As his fame and demand for his work grew, he opened a gallery in San Francisco in 1977 that was directed by his son, Richard.
Finally, from his book’s author, Patricia Jobe Pierce, she sums up Thompson’s work: “Thompson is jubilant with the expressions of the physical world and he is challenged to catch nature’s evanescent scurrying moments on canvas. He treats art as a noble central part of life where beauty is capable of being enshrined, and he endeavors to show absorbing, intimate, secret truths which jolt our sensibilities into a renewed aesthetic conscience.”
He produced 1525 numbered paintings during his 77 years of life. He died in Truckee, CA in 1991 of pancreatic cancer.
The two main sources for this article are:
“Richard Earl Thompson, American Impressionist” by Patricia Jobe Pierce
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